Enjoying view from the peak

Football: Toiling in the shadows for most of his career, Bubby Brister, 37, starts on top in Denver, with the goal of leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl three-peat.

August 17, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREELEY, Colo. -- Bubby Brister, the here-and-now quarterback of the Denver Broncos, has been there and then.

Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York were way stations on a long, slow train that ultimately pointed west. In a 10-year odyssey that hardly seemed to prepare him for his own Rocky Mountain high, Brister has toiled -- often thanklessly -- for the Steelers, Eagles and Jets.

Now, at the advanced football age of 37, three years removed from what appeared to be the end of the line, Brister is living out a fantasy. He's the starting quarterback on the two-time, defending Super Bowl champions. His dream team has Terrell Davis at tailback, Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak on the headsets, and Bill Romanowski leading the defensive charge.

"It's an opportunity I dreamed about all my life, getting to play with the Super Bowl champs and the best coaches in a town with the best fans," Brister said under a cloudless Colorado sky that, on this morning anyway, imposed no limits. "I couldn't have written it any better. I just have to go out and do my part."

Oh, yes, there is one small catch. He's replacing a quarterback whose legend grows every day, even though the toughest thing John Elway does now is sit for another beer com mercial.

Elway won more games (148), authored more fourth-quarter comebacks (47) and appeared in more Super Bowls (five) than any quarterback in NFL history. Forget that he threw 226 interceptions over 16 years, that he lost his first three Super Bowls in dismal fashion.

It was back-to-back championships that elevated Elway to icon status, and that's the daunting shadow that Brister, a country boy from Monroe, La., will labor under this season -- or for however long he remains the starting quarterback.

Brister brings a career record of 37-38 as a starter into 1999, including four wins as Elway's backup last season. But he knows he will be judged not on how many touchdown passes he throws, but on whether he takes the Broncos back to the Super Bowl in their three-peat venture.

That's the only criteria that will matter in final analysis.

"It shouldn't be, but it is," Brister said. "There are a lot of quarterbacks out there who will never do what John did. John was one of the best ever to play. [But] I think we have the team and the system maybe to three-peat, or win another Super Bowl or two."

If there is a team that could absorb the loss of its marquee quarterback and still aspire to Super Bowl heights, it is these Broncos. The offensive system that Shanahan brought with him from the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 is as versatile as it is prolific.

In Shanahan's four seasons as head coach, the Broncos have more cumulative rushing yards (9,002) and total yards (23,795) than any team in the league. They set franchise records in both categories -- as well as points scored with 501 -- a year ago.

It's no wonder that 34-year-old quarterback Chris Miller, attempting a comeback after sitting out three-plus seasons due to postconcussion syndrome, leaped at the chance to join the Broncos. Miller is competing with Brian Griese for backup duty.

"It's a very quarterback-friendly offense," Miller said. "You always have someplace to go with the ball. Their playbook is so thick and so deep, if somebody reacts to something you're doing, boom, they just pull out a subtle change or adjustment, and then you're just abusing defenses."

The expectation is that opposing defenses will game-plan around Denver's Davis, who rushed for 2,008 yards last season and a total of 5,296 over the past three years. That would put the onus on Brister to make plays in the passing game.

Shanahan doesn't think that defensive strategy will work.

"If they have eight or nine people at the line of scrimmage to take away Terrell Davis, they're going to give us some opportunities for some big plays," he said. "No way you're going to stop Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe and Howard Griffith, stopping Terrell Davis on every running play."

Denver's 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII proved that. Operating often from a five-receiver set, Elway threw for 336 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown, to collect the MVP hardware.

Shanahan already has favorably compared Brister's arm strength to that of Elway. If the Broncos tweak their post-Elway offense in any way, it most likely will be to take advantage of Brister's mobility on bootlegs.

"Last year, John had a couple of hamstring injuries," said left guard Mark Schlereth. "The difference this year is, we can do things to get Bubby outside the pocket. We won't have the fear of John pulling up."

Released after seven years in Pittsburgh, Brister passed briefly through Philadelphia as a backup in 1993-94. That's where Romanowski, a linebacker then with the Eagles, came to appreciate Brister's unappreciated skills.

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